Add Drama to Photos with Lightroom’s Graduated Filter

One of the most valuable features introduced in Lightroom 2 is the ability to apply corrections to selected areas in your photos using the Graduated Filter tool and the Adjustment brush. Both tools let you apply a change, such as a contrast or saturation correction, to one portion of the image while leaving the rest of the image unaffected. The Graduated Filter tool is ideal for correcting large areas, typically 1/4 to 1/2 of the image at a time. The Adjustment Brush, on the other hand, is ideal for correcting very small areas; for example, lightening eyes in a portrait. This tutorial focuses on using the Graduated Filter tool to control the lightness of foreground and background elements in landscape photos.

Before diving into the how-to portion of this article, it’s useful to first understand what a graduated filter is and why it’s such a valuable tool for photographers.

Graduated filters are different than the global changes you make to the Exposure or Contrast controls in the Basic panel of the Develop module, which are applied equally to the entire photo. Instead, the Graduated Filter allows you to apply these corrections selectively using a gradient, which gradually transitions between the corrected and the uncorrected areas. That lets you make corrections to one area of a photo without leaving an obvious line between the corrected and uncorrected areas. This is ideal for darkening skies or lightening foregrounds, since the transition line of the gradient (which blends corrected and uncorrected portions of the photo) can easily be hidden along the horizon. The advantages of Lightoom’s Gradient Filter lie in the speed and ease with which it corrects large areas within an image. Once you begin working with the Graduated Filter tool, you’ll find it an invaluable ally in your digital photography workflow.

Working With The Graduated Filter Tool
I shot Figure 1 off the Costa Brava in Spain. It’s a nice composition, but the early morning light lacks drama. The Graduated Filter tool is perfect for quickly giving this photo the punch it needs to stand out.

Figure 1

Note: It’s important to use the Graduated Filter tool on Camera Raw files whenever possible. Camera Raw files contain details in the highlights that you can recover using the Recovery or Exposure sliders in Lightroom. JPEG files can’t store this additional information and won’t allow you to take full advantage of the Graduated Filter tool.

The Graduated Filter tool is in the Develop module immediately below the Histogram. Click on the Graduated Filter icon (Figure 2), or use the keyboard shortcut “M” to open the Graduated Filter tool drawer.

Figure 2

By default, the Graduated Filter controls let you adjust one effect at a time (Exposure, Brightness, Saturation etc.). Click on the Show Effect Sliders to allow multiple effects for each gradient. This gives you more control over your corrections.

Figure 3

Figure 4. The expanded Gradient Filter panel allows you to correct several effects with a single gradient correction.

Begin by clicking and dragging your cursor from the area of the image you’d like corrected to the unaffected area. Lightroom will begin drawing your gradient and provide you three lines (Figure 5):

* The first line is created at the point you first clicked on the image. This is the beginning of the gradient transition.

* The midpoint of the gradient, indicated with a black and gray circle in the center, marks the area where the gradient fades from corrected to unaffected.

* The final line, created when you release the mouse, shows the end of the gradient transition.

Figure 5. The text on the left shows the start, mid and ending lines of the gradient, and the corresponding intensity of the correction is on the right. (Gradient correction exaggerated for clarity).

The most difficult aspect of using the Graduated Filter tool is understanding how long the gradient should be so your correction isn’t obvious, but instead blends seamlessly into your photo. Long gradients produce smooth transitions ideal for photos without an obvious break or horizon line, like mountains or a cityscape. Short gradients produce an abrupt transition, which works well on images with an obvious horizon line, like this photo of the coast. Spend a little time experimenting with Gradient Filter and it will become second nature.

Once you’ve created your gradient, begin applying your corrections using the sliders in the Graduated Filter tool drawer. For this image, I’ve darkened the sky slightly to make it recede from view and allow the foreground elements to take center stage. This is a technique I frequently use when working on photos taken outdoors.

To see a before and after preview of the gradient’s effect, toggle the On/Off switch in the lower-left corner of the Graduated Filter tool drawer. Exit the Graduated Filter mode by pressing the Close button in the lower-right corner of the drawer.

Applying Multiple Graduated Filters To Your Photos
Often, you’ll want to apply more than one Graduated Filter correction to an image. To do so, select New from the top-right corner of the Graduated Filter drawer (Figure 6). This prompts Lightroom to apply your corrections to a new mask instead of editing the previous one.

Figure 6

Click and drag across the image to create your new gradient correction, then adjust the Effect sliders as necessary. In this example, I used a second gradient mask to lighten the foreground, boost saturation, and increase sharpness slightly (Figure 7). This makes the foreground more prominent in the finished picture.

Figure 7

Using Color To Heighten Interest
One of my favorite features in the Graduated Filter tool drawer is the color box, which adds a tint to the gradient to warm it up or cool it down. Click on the small box to the right of the Color heading to open the color picker and select a color to use as a tint (Figure 8). I prefer to select a heavily saturated color toward the top of the color picker, then use the saturation slider at the bottom of the color picker to decrease the intensity of the tint being added to the photo. Click on the “X” in the top left of the color picker to close it.

Figure 8

To heighten the interest in a photo, I’ll add a slight warm tint to the foreground and a faint, cool tint to the sky (Figure 9). This improves the separation between the foreground and the sky.

Figure 9

Switching Between Multiple Gradients
To switch between gradients, simply click on the Graduated Filter pin (the grey and black circle in the center of the gradient) to select the gradient. The Mask mode will return to the Edit mode and display the Effect settings associated with the gradient. Since the graduated filters are applied non-destructively to your image, you can edit your gradients as often as you need without damaging your image. Should you ever need to delete a gradient, click on the gradient’s pin and press delete.

Once you’re satisfied with your Graduated Filter corrections, press the Close button in the lower-right corner of the Graduated Filter tool drawer to close the drawer and return to normal image editing.

As you can see from the before and after below, using the Graduated Filter tool is a quick way to enliven and enhance digital photos with minimal effort.

Figure 10. Before

Figure 11. After

As you become familiar with the Graduated Filter tool, you’ll find yourself using it at two separate times during your workflow:

Early: Use the Graduated filter tool early in your image correction workflow to bring one element in the photo in balance with the rest of the image—darkening an overly bright sky to match it with the rest of the photo, for example. This allows you to use the global correction tools found throughout Lightroom’s Develop module to correct the image as a whole.

Late: The Graduated Filter tool can also be used late in your image correction workflow to subtly refine specific areas within your photo, similar to the corrections you used to make with layer masks in Photoshop.

Common Uses
To help jump start your imagination, I’ve included a list of some of the most common uses of the Graduated Filter tool. I’m sure you’ll find many others to suit the specific needs of your workflow and your style of photography.

Darken sky: Use a negative Exposure and Brightness setting to create moody, brooding skies.

Brighten foreground: Brighten the foreground to call attention to your foreground elements and heighten a three-dimensional aspect of your photos.

Sharpening: Use a gradient to selectively increase sharpness in one area of the photo. The viewer’s eye is naturally drawn to the sharpest area in the photo. This is particularly effective when used on photos taken with a shallow depth of field.

Clarity: Using a negative Clarity setting can blur the background slightly. This increases the feeling of distance between the foreground subject and the background.

Hopefully, this tutorial has piqued your interest in working with Lightroom 2’s Graduated Filter tool. It is certainly a worthwhile addition to an already useful program.

Jay Kinghorn is an Adobe Photoshop Certified Expert, Olympus Visionary photographer and full-time digital workflow consultant and trainer. He specializes in helping corporations use their photos efficiently and effectively by streamlining workflow processes and improving employee’s skills using Adobe Photoshop and other multimedia tools. Kinghorn is co-author of Perfect Digital Photography and author of Photoshop training DVDs. He lectures and presents to businesses and universities internationally. His presentations focus on digital photography workflows, color management, image optimization and the future of photography. His clients include Olympus, Sony, Adobe, Cabela’s, Vail Resorts and Pearl Izumi.

Jay recently completed work on the second edition of Perfect Digital Photography, which will be available in bookstores in late-April 2009.

Blog: http://jaykinghorn.com
Consulting: www.prorgb.com

 

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Posted on: April 6, 2009

7 Comments on Add Drama to Photos with Lightroom’s Graduated Filter

  1. This is an excellent article – I wasn’t even aware that this existed! Thanks/Peter

  2. Really appreciated this succinct yet informative tutorial, Jay. I didn’t read up on the filter before using it so I didn’t realize that the place I first clicked on the photo was the start line for the effect. Very helpful.

    Naomi

  3. That was a great, easy to follow and well written tutorial. Much appreciated, many thanks.

  4. Graduated filters (grads) come to the rescue of landscape images spoiled by bland, washed out skies. If you live in a climate where these skies are the norm, then these are the landscape photographer’s best friend. Outdoor professional photographers have discovered the importance of using graduated neutral density filters for landscapes to capture greater detail whenever a scene combines a bright sky area and a somewhat darker foreground.

  5. Excellent! One thing unclear. How do you localize the color- add on the pier?
    Charlie

  6. Thank you for the tip. I use light room often but have not used the graduated filter so far. Thanks! http://www.jamadophotography.com

  7. Hi Jay, great tips. I would like to mimick the effect of the graduated filter with color gradient in CS5. My idea was to clip a color fill adjustment layer to a screen or multiply layer with a gradient mask applied. Is there a better way to create the same adjustment outlined in your tutorial in Photoshop?

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